Although I have been making maps for a dozen years now, cartography, in the sense of a general desire and competence to make maps, remains alien to me. The maps I have so far undertaken cover all the land I can see from where I live, and are elaborated and externalized version of the mental sketchmaps one makes to situate oneself, cognitively and emotionally, in a new locality. Since it was the disorientating nature of the place I had opted to live in that urged me to map it, I should begin this brief retrospect with a hint of its strangeness to one coming there directly from London. The Aran Islands are three chips of limestone off the Burren, the paradoxical character of which is well indicated by the name of its ruined abbey, 'St Mary of the Fertile Rock'. However the islands are more on speaking terms with Connemara, sharing with it the honour and burden of a language in retreat, carrying an oral tradition older than Christianity. The Atlantic batters, caresses, bewilders and depresses the two mainlands and lavishes its attentions on the islands in particular. That will do; that is already more than I knew when I arrived in 1972, to live in a hamlet an hour's walk west of the little port of Árainn, the largest of the islands.


To find myself, in such a landscape, or series of interlocking landscapes, was, it turned out, to be the business of many years, and has been done principally through mapping and writing. The maps are published under the imprint of Folding Landscapes, the little publishing concern run by my partner and myself, since 1984, in Roundstone, Connemara. The maps produced so far are of the Aran Islands (1976 and 1984) and the Burren (1977); work on Connemara is (endlessly?) ongoing.

I approached mapping primarily as an art-form particularly suited to ordering large amounts of fact into an expressive whole. My education had been in maths and physics, but my 'formation' was that of an artist working in abstract and 'environmental' modes in the London of the late '60s, while my draughtsmanship was the residue of a period as a freelance technical illustrator. So I came to the practice of cartography largely ignorant of its specific techniques, theories and received ideas, not to say deeply suspicious of its technological and organizational structures that distance the drawer of the map ever farther from the place to be drawn, alienating the hand from the foot. For me, making a map was to be a one-to-one encounter between a person and a terrain, a commitment unlimitable in terms of time and effort, an existential project of knowing a place. The map itself could hardly then be more than an interim report on the progress of its own making.

However, from the start I found myself in collaboration with a traditional cartography. These marginal areas of Ireland were last mapped in detail by the Ordnance Survey in the 1890s and the eighty-year old six-inch sheets proved to be the ideal basis for my own work, for they lent it a skeletal correctitude of topography but were singularly short of flesh of their own. In the Burren it was the hope of finding some of the many unrecorded prehistoric sites that had me quartering the blanks on the old maps. In Aran and in Irish-speaking South Connemara the Ordnance Survey placenames, few and far between, had to be discarded as they were anglicized garblings that smelled of centuries of cultural imperialism; it became my duty and pleasure to enquire out their original Irish forms and still vivid meanings, a quest that led me into labyrinths of folklore and local history.

When it came to drawing my first maps, I restricted myself to black, and to linear techniques, the better to represent the interweaving of various aspects of the territory. A coloured map, I felt, could easily fall apart visually and conceptually, into superimposed but otherwise separate layers. In devising symbols for different terrains such as rocky shore, sand-dunes, craggy hillside and blanket bog, I looked for visual equivalents of their feel underfoot, the internationally standardized ornaments being unknown in practice and a priori unacceptable to me; even the term 'ornament', with its connotations of superficiality and redundancy, was quite inappropriate for these textures that were to be the very substance and ground of the drawing. Off-the-peg tints and rulings were out of the question too; in any case I found that by consciously positioning even the minutest specks and flecks (done with a 0.1 mm nib, for reduction 3:2) I could create subliminal clearances around the larger marks such as the dots of townland boundary lines, which enhanced their clarity and compensated for the absence of colour contrasts. It was of course axiomatic that the cardinal features of the territory in question would suggest the layout and presentation of the sheet; I was not in the business of carving up the continuity of the earth's surface into standard portions. For instance I could choose to show the detail of Aran's majestic range of Atlantic cliffs in a seagull's-eye perspective in a way that would have been impossible and irrelevant in the case of the anfractuous shores of Connemara.

In all these choices I was trying to preserve the texture of immediate experience. I had a formula to guide me and whip me on through the thickets of difficulties I encountered: while walking this land, I am the pen on the paper; while drawing this map, my pen is myself walking the land. The purpose of this identification was to short-circuit the polarities of objectivity and subjectivity, and help me keep faith with reality.

Some of the more puritanical ordinances of my early practice have been relaxed now, as I revel in the latitudinarian spaces of Connemara. But my basic orientation is the same: a map is a sustained attempt upon an unattainable goal, the complete comprehension by an individual of a tract of space that will be individualized into a place by that attempt. A banal little inequality, etched into me by the cartographical experience, asserts that unattainability. If t is some linear measure of the sheet within which one is to express oneself, T the corresponding measure of the territory one would express, and m a suitable measure of the richness of detail one's pen can make lucid, then M, the measure of reality these chosen means can grasp, is forever limited thus:


M ≤ mt/T

This appeared in The Bulletin of the Society of University Cartographers (Vol. 20, No. 1, Reading, June 1986) and in The American Geographical Society Newsletter (Vol. 9, No. !, New York, 1989). I have recast one or two passages to avoid overlap with others essays in this volume. As to the trifling formula into which I sought to compress all the pathos and challenge of cartography, I thought of adding a derivation, but then remembered the maxim 'Never apologize, never derive'; so I leave it as a minor infraction of the bounds of the literary.